Proverbs 16:9, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” is a great comfort to me, especially in times of uncertainty. The Lord is ultimately in charge of my plans and my future and as a perfectly loving Father, his hands are the perfect place for my future. I can therefore have peace in the midst of uncertainty and also refocus my heart not simply on my own plans, but on God’s will for my life.
Unfortunately, early in my spiritual walk, discerning the will of God included falling to some insidious traps that ironically created anxiety, confusion, and anything but peace. These traps each involved false beliefs about the nature of spiritual discernment and at times were intertwined with the deceitfulness of my own heart. Here are three spiritual traps to recognize in your own maturation in discerning God’s will for your life.
1. Equating the Will of God with a Comfortable and Perfect Life
For me, success included material wealth, but more fundamentally the absence of difficulty and suffering and the presence of joy, pleasure and happiness. The voice of God was synonymous with my own self-centered ideas of success. So long as my life was generally comfortable and things were going my way (which was rare), I did not trouble myself with actively seeking God’s will because it was unnecessary.
When things were not going my way, I would begin to rack my brain and agonize over discovering God’s will. The quest to discover God’s will seemed like cracking a safe, solving a complex puzzle, or discovering a long lost artifact – it all depended on how clever I was and how hard I worked. However, the reality was that I did not necessarily want to hear the voice of God to lead me, so much as I wanted to know what paths in life would make me the most successful.
Dallas Willard remarks, “Our failure to hear His voice when we want to is due to the fact that we do not in general want to hear it, that we want it only when we think we need it.”
The point is not that God’s will is always equivalent to a life of misery and suffering, but rather my ideas of success need to themselves be submitted to God’s control. Instead of seeking God’s will, I simply wanted my will with God’s rubber stamp on it; I wanted a spiritual get-rich-quick scheme. Yet God’s will is not a mystery to be solved or a one-time decision, but a way of life under the Kingship of Jesus.
2. Minimizing or Rationalizing Past Sin Based on Present Outcomes
A verse I would often go to as a companion to Proverbs 16:9 was Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” In my self-centeredness I took this passage to mean not only would the Lord direct my steps, but he would always work things out for my good, period (I would more often than not ignore the context of the passage, especially the few verses that followed it). It was not too long before I came to believe that my decisions did not necessarily make much difference if God was going to work it all out in my favor anyways. More importantly, so long as things were going okay right now in the present, it was easy to minimize the seriousness of my past mistakes and sin.
I have also encountered this sort of attitude in the phrase “no regrets,” which is often used by people who have made terrible immoral decisions, but nevertheless feel justified and exonerated of their wrong actions because they are not experiencing any negative consequences from their decisions here and now. The present outcomes are not that bad and so one comes to believe his or her actions weren’t that bad or were ok.
Consider the apostle Peter who spoke proudly of his commitment to Jesus and yet still ended up denying him three times when it counted the most. Yet God redeemed a terrible situation and also restored Peter from his sin in denying Christ. Three days after the heartache of the crucifixion, the disciples, including Peter, are celebrating and rejoicing with the risen Jesus. Imagine a fictional conversation that would have taken place between Jesus and Peter. If Peter were to have adopted this spiritual trap, he might have said something like this to Jesus, “I guess it really doesn’t matter that I denied you three times Lord, because here we are, you’re resurrected and it’s all good. It’s just like they say ‘all things work out for the good of those who love you’, up top!”
Such a response would be offensive and self-justifying to say the least. God’s working out of all things out for the good of those who love him is a function of his goodness and grace and of his foreknowledge and predestination to conform us to the image of his Son. If our lives are preserved and blessed today, even though we made terrible decisions in the past, it is not because those decisions did not matter morally, it is because God is gracious and faithful to forgive. God’s will for our lives includes redemption and the forgiveness of sin, effectively reversing its power, but it never condones sin or sweeps it under the rug.
3. Nullifying Past Decisions or Commitments Based on Present Outcomes or Circumstances
Positive outcomes or current circumstances may cause us to feel apathetic to past sin, but when present outcomes and circumstances bring difficulty we may come to regret past decisions that were genuinely good. After several months of prayer and the counsel of mentors, I decided to act on my deep desire to go to seminary right after I finished my undergraduate degree. My first semester was full of doubt and anxiety because it turned out to be an incredibly difficult season of life for me filled with financial, relational, and emotional stressors. I wondered if I had made the right decision, and I was genuinely afraid that I had misunderstood God’s will for my life, that I had made a mistake because it was all so difficult. It would have been easy to run immediately from those difficulties, yet those circumstances propelled my faith and intimacy with God like few other things.
One of the ways in which this third trap manifests is in an attitude that easily discards commitments in the face of adversity and interprets those previous commitments as “mistakes.” I think of people who are ready to abandon their marriages and interpret their covenant promises as mistakes because actually keeping them is difficult and requires more than they are willing to give.
The strength of any commitment is directly tied to the character of the person making it. If my character is determined by the changing winds of my circumstances or emotions, then my commitments will mean little. God’s will for my life however is not flimsy or plagued by the limitations of human sin and fragility. As James 1:16-18 reminds us, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”
There is no shifting shadow or moral weakness in God’s character. In times of suffering for doing the right thing we ought to remember Paul’s injunction in Romans 5:3-5 which says “but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Finally, while it is certainly possible to misinterpret or get God’s will wrong for our lives, getting it right is not simply a matter of figuring out what to do, but becoming the kind of people God would have us be.
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